Brahimi warns Syria elections could end talks

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UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned Thursday that if Syria goes forward with presidential elections, it would likely mean the end of reconciliation talks with the Syrian opposition.

“If there is an election, then my suspicion is that the opposition, all the oppositions, will probably not be interested in talking to the government,” Brahimi told reporters at the UN in New York Thursday, after briefing the UN Security Council on the situation.

“We would like the help of the Council and all those who can help to make sure that if and when we have a third round it will be a little bit more productive than the second one,” Brahimi said.

But Russia on Thursday blocked a draft UN Security Council statement that expressed the body’s support for Brahimi’s Syria mediation efforts, and would have endorsed his call for parallel talks on ending terrorism and a political transition.

Russia’s envoy Vitaly Churkin did not attend Brahimi’s briefing, but was seen by Bloomberg News’ UN reporter conferring with Syria’s UN envoy Bashar Ja’afari outside the Council in the UN’s Turkish lounge during the session.

Ja’afari later told UN reporters Thursday that Syria’s parliament was discussing an election law that would apply to all of Syria’s elections—presidential, parliamentary and local—but did not confirm if presidential elections would go forward this summer.

Britain’s UN envoy Mark Lyall Grant took to Twitter Thursday to express disappointment that the UN Security Council could not muster agreement for “even [a] simple statement of support” for Brahimi’s efforts.

Brahimi is due to brief the full UN General Assembly on his Syria mediation efforts on Friday. It’s not clear if he’s seeking a vote to back his efforts from the UN General Assembly, in which no country has a veto.

(Photo by Bloomberg News’ Sangwon Yoon, of Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin and Syria’s Bashar Jaafari conferring outside the UN Security Council Thursday, via  Twitter.)

U.S. says willing to join Russia in Syria peace talks

As a new round of Syria peace talks got underway in Geneva Monday, the United States said it was open to a Russian proposal that American and Russian diplomats join the UN and Syrian parties in a joint meeting.

“We have always supported full implementation of the Geneva  communique, and if additional meetings under UN auspices will help the negotiations move forward, we are very ready to consider these,” a U.S. official in Geneva, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in an emailed statement Monday.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, speaking to Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency, proposed “that Russian, American and U.N. officials meet the Syrian government and opposition delegations at peace talks in Geneva,” Reuters reported.

“Russia diplomats are approaching the organization of the negotiating process as creatively as possible,” Bogdanov said.

US officials said the focus of this week’s meetings should be on “having the Syrian delegations start the detailed discussions” on establishing a transition governing body with full executive authority.

US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is due to hold a three-way meeting with UN/Arab League joint Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov in Geneva on Friday, the State Department confirmed.

“Moving forward, we will continue to do what we can to help JSR Brahimi’s efforts succeed, including through our regular engagement in Geneva with the UN, Russia, the London 11, and the opposition delegation,” the US official said, regarding the Russian proposal.

The proposal for bringing the major powers into the meeting with the Syrian parties came as the United Nations and Syrian Red Crescent evacuated over 1000 people from the besieged old city of Homs over the weekend and managed to deliver emergency food and medical supplies in harrowing conditions, including sporadic shelling, mortar and rifle fire. At least eleven Syrians waiting to be rescued were killed in Homs over the weekend, a UN spokesman said Monday, and a Syrian Red Crescent driver was wounded when the group’s convoy came under attack trying to bring food aid into Homs on Saturday, the group said.

The Syrian Red Crescent and two affiliated Red Cross organizations expressed alarm about the targeting of the relief convoys to Homs and pleaded for a halt to the violence against humanitarian aid workers in Syria.

The groups “join in calling for immediate steps to be taken to protect healthcare and humanitarian personnel,” they said in a joint statement Monday. “Without respect for the emblems and protection of those bearing them, crossing front lines to save lives is all but impossible.”

The Syrian regime agreed to the Homs aid operation after weeks of negotiations under heavy pressure from Russia and Iran, the Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher reported from Homs Sunday.

But despite Russian efforts to facilitate the humanitarian operation in Homs, Russia has said it would likely oppose a UN Security Council resolution on Syria humanitarian aid access being circulated in New York by Jordan, Australia and Luxembourg, saying it is not the right time and the draft proposal is too far reaching. China and Russia did not show up for a UN Security Council meeting on Monday to discuss the measure, the New York Times reported. Itar-Tass cited Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin: “This text would not have any practical, positive impact on the situation.”

The UK and France have said they will try to push for such a measure this week.

“The Security Council should require full and unimpeded humanitarian access, including to those areas being besieged by the regime,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague wrote in an oped Tuesday. “It should demand an immediate end to the use of starvation as a weapon of war, and to impunity for violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses. And it should call for the regime to stop using barrel bombs and other kinds of weaponry against innocent civilians.”

(Photo: Syrian families being evacuated from the besieged old city of Homs by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent society and UN on Sunday, February 9, 2014.  Photo by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Homs Media Committee.)

P5+1 turns focus to implementing Iran nuclear deal

Western diplomats expressed confidence about Iran sticking to the terms of an interim nuclear accord signed in Geneva last month as they met to discuss implementing the agreement and the process going forward for negotiating an end state deal.

The diplomatic consultations come ahead of a technical meeting between diplomats from Iran and six world powers in Vienna next week that will focus on implementing the November 24th accord.

“I think it will hold, because it’s in Iran’s interest for it to hold,” Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told the PBS News Hour Wednesday (Dec. 4). “Iran is looking for some economic relief. There’s very little in this agreement, but it is the first step to a comprehensive agreement which will give them the economic relief they are looking for.”

“We are discussing 6 or 7 parameters that have to be crystallized into the common position of the P5+1,” a senior western official, speaking not for attribution, said Thursday, of the diplomatic consultations among the six world powers. The current priority is “implementation of the Nov. 24 agreement and deciding on a process.”

In terms of implementing the Phase 1 deal, “there are obvious facts to be confirmed by the [International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA – stopping 20 percent, converting half the stockpile… enhanced monitoring,” the senior western official said.

Secretary of State John Kerry and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton discussed that process for implementing the Iran deal when they met in Brussels earlier this week. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Under Secretary Sherman were scheduled to meet with French political director Jacques Audibert  on Thursday, the State Department schedule indicated. The British non-resident charge to Iran Ajay Sharma, until recently the UK’s deputy political director, was also in Washington for consultations Thursday, after traveling to Iran earlier this week, diplomatic sources said.

Burns has been leading a bilateral channel with Iran that gained momentum after the August inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani,  Al-Monitor first reported last month (November 24). Sherman leads the US negotiations between the P5+1 and  Iran. The bilateral discussions between Iran and the United States have focused almost exclusively on the nuclear issue and fed back into the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, US officials stressed, though the issue of Americans held in Iran has also been raised.

“All of the issues that arose in that private bilateral conversation also arose in the P5+1,” Sherman told PBS. “And I think very effectively the P5+1 used our bilateral channel and other bilateral discussions that were going on with other partners to get to this agreement.”

European Union foreign ministers are scheduled to meet on December 16 to discuss possibly suspending some EU sanctions against Iran for a period of six months as part of the first phase agreement reached in Geneva on November 24th.

The US administration has urged Congress to hold off on passing new sanctions on Iran–even if the sanctions would not come into effect until after six months if an end state deal is not reached. Continue reading

Iran's Rouhani urges West to 'seize' moment for diplomacy

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On the eve of his trip to New York, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani continued his charm offensive, publishing an op-ed in the Washington Post Friday urging world leaders to “seize the opportunity presented by Iran’s recent election” and his “mandate” for “prudent engagement.”

“To move beyond impasses, whether in relation to Syria, my country’s nuclear program or its relations with the United States, we need to aim higher,” Rouhani wrote in the Post. “Rather than focusing on how to prevent things from getting worse, we need to think — and talk — about how to make things better.”

Rouhani’s push for dialogue on both regional and nuclear issues came as the White House continued to assert U.S. willingness for direct talks.

“We have heard a lot in the world from President Rouhani’s administration about its desire to improve the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s relations with the international community,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said at the White House press briefing Thursday. “And President Obama believes we should test that assertion, and we are and we will do that.”

In his letter to Rouhani, “the President indicated that the U.S. is ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allows Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes,” Carney said. “The letter also conveyed the need to act with a sense of urgency.”

Ahead of Rouhani's arrival in New York, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was scheduled to meet with Iranian scholars and think tank experts in New York Friday. Zarif is due to hold talks with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton Monday, and with the British and Russian foreign ministers later in the week.

Rouhani will likely meet with French President Francois Hollande in New York on Tuesday, a French official told Al-Monitor Friday.

The White House has signaled Obama’s openness to meet with Rouhani, but has previously said there are no current plans for a meeting.

The media has gone into a frenzy about the possibility of an Obama-Rouhani handshake in New York. Both leaders are due to address the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday September 24th, Obama as the second speaker in the morning, and Rouhani, the seventh, in the afternoon.

“People here [in Washington] will want to see something very real from Tehran,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, told Al-Monitor Friday. “And of course the US has to reciprocate. But from the dominant US perspective, the onus is on Iran.”

Amir Mohebbian, a political commentator in Iran, told the New York Times in an interview that Iran is seeking short-term relief from sanctions imposed on its ability to transfer money. “We particularly want to be readmitted to the Swift system,” Mohebbian told the Times. What Iran would be willing to trade for such a concession is not yet clear, but scholars in the orbit of Zarif and Rouhani have suggested they would be amenable in an end-state deal to more aggressive IAEA monitoring and safeguards, capping enrichment at 5%, and limiting the number of Iran's centrifuges and enrichment sites.

“All the optics from Tehran — even from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — indicate that Iran is gearing up for a new attempt at a nuclear deal,” Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote at Foreign Policy Thursday. “If a deal can't be made in the next few months, it's hard to see another opportunity when the chances would ever be this good again.”

The new Iranian “administration has opened a door to a better relationship, and one better for the United States, about as widely as such doors ever are opened,” Paul Pillar, former senior US intelligence analyst, wrote at the National Interest. “The United States would be foolish not to walk through it.”

(Photo: Iran President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Getty.)zp8497586rq